I welcome the Bill. It arises as a result of a review carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the mess that has become the driver testing system. The review recommended that the area of driver testing should be established under a public sector agency. That makes some sense but I share the concerns of Deputy Olivia Mitchell that this initiative may be used by the Minister as an attempt to hive off his responsibility in terms of setting policy in the driver testing and licensing area and accounting to the Dáil for what is happening in that area. I hope that under the terms of this legislation the new agency will be accountable to the Minister and that the Minister, in turn, will be accountable to the Dáil for the performance of that agency. If that is not provided for clearly in the legislation, we will seek to amend it to provide for that because it is a critical aspect of the road safety plan and it is not acceptable for the Minister to attempt to off-load his responsibility to a separate agency. We have seen that happen in regard to many aspects of public life where different agencies and quangos were set up and the Minister concerned could keep them at arm's length and not be accountable to the Dáil for performance in that area.
This initiative is long overdue and has been promised for many years. In 2002, the Taoiseach was asked about it on the Order of Business and he promised that the legislation would be available in mid-2003. It was not until July 2004 that the Bill was published and now, in March 2005, we are debating Second Stage. It is clear there has been considerable slippage in terms of undertakings given in the area of driver testing. That is as a result of a lack of priority given to this area by the Minister and his predecessor.
The issue of driver testing and licensing is fundamentally about road safety. When we consider what has happened in regard to road safety in recent years, following the initial positive effects of the penalty points system, we see now that road deaths and serious accidents are again increasing significantly. That indicates a failure on the part of the Government to give adequate attention to the issue of road safety.
The road safety strategy was published in late 2004, over a year late. It replaces the 1998-2002 strategy but throughout 2003 and for most of 2004, a current road safety strategy was not in place. It appears the previous Minister, Deputy Brennan, was too busy meddling in semi-State companies and issuing meaningless press statements to give attention to this area, and we have had to deal with the consequences of that neglect. The number of deaths and serious injuries caused on our roads continues to rise and no serious initiative has been taken in the past two years to tackle that problem.
Unfortunately and inexplicably, the review of the road strategy 1998-2002 did not consider the impact of inexperienced and unlicensed drivers on road accident figures. That is extraordinary and I wonder if it was because it might have been too embarrassing for the Minister or his predecessor to tackle this problem. No serious work appears to have been done in preparation for the current road safety strategy, particularly in terms of reviewing its predecessor.
As regards speeding, the review of the previous road safety strategy shows that an initial target was set in terms of reducing the incidence of excessive speeding by 50%. That seems a reasonable target. It is regrettable, however, that during the course of the strategy, it was refined and became an objective merely to reduce the number of vehicles exceeding the 60 mph speed limit on single carriageway roads from 51% to 40%. In my view it was pathetic to aim to have a situation where only 40% of drivers were exceeding the limit to which I refer. It was, however, indicative of the extent to which people completely disregard road safety legislation and speed limits. It also provided evidence of the scale of the turnaround that needs to be achieved in terms of road safety. In that context, it is unacceptable and unforgivable that the Minister and his predecessor have paid so little attention to the area of road safety.
The fact that the Second Stage debate on this legislation commenced last October and that we are only returning to it today is again indicative of the lack of priority the Minister is giving to this area. In October, the Minister suggested, incredibly, that there is no correlation between unlicensed drivers and road accidents. One wonders on what planet he lives. I accept that data relating to this matter do not exist. Questions must be asked as to why this is the case and why this area has not been examined. The Minister's statement that there is no correlation because there are no data is meaningless. It stands to reason that if there are large numbers of inexperienced and unlicensed people driving on our roads, they will contribute to the accident rate. Any attempt by the Minister to negate that correlation is disingenuous. There is no basis, other than the fact that these specific data are not collected by any agency, for the Minister to make such a contention. Inexperienced drivers, particularly those who have failed their driving tests, represent a hazard on the road and are much more likely than others to be involved in accidents.
I discovered some interesting data which appears to deny the contention the Minister made in October. The National Safety Council produced data in 2003 which seem to indicate that there is a relationship between unlicensed or provisionally licensed drivers and road accident rates. The council found that 66% of accidents involving fatal and serious injury are due to driver action. It also discovered that speed is the single largest cause of such accidents. The NSC considered this matter in greater detail and it emerged that 78% of speed related accidents are caused by people under the age of 34. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable and logical to draw the conclusion that a significant number of those driving on provisional licences — these people are, by their nature, young and inexperienced — fall into the category of people who cause serious accidents which result in death or serious injury. If the Minister is determined to deal with the area of road safety, he must ensure that data relating to serious accidents and the driving status of the people who cause them should be collected either by the Garda or the National Safety Council. Action in that regard should be taken immediately.
The existing driver testing system can only be described as a shambles. There are 380,000 drivers on provisional licences. Of these, 178,000 are on their first licence, 107,000 are on their second licence and 95,000 are on their third or subsequent licence. It is clear, therefore, that more than half these people — 202,000 — can legally drive alone. I do not know how the Minister can justify this. I am not aware of any other country where a person can obtain a provisional licence when they turn 17, never drive a car and subsequently obtain a second provisional licence and legally drive alone. We have set a dangerous precedent in terms of people who have had two provisional licences and who fail their driving tests because these individuals can legally drive alone for a further two years. That is an intolerable situation and there is no way the Minister can stand over it, particularly if he has any interest in the area of road safety.
This situation has developed because of a complete lack of responsibility on the part of the Minister and his predecessors to tackle seriously the areas of driving, driver safety and driver testing. The system has been brought into serious disrepute. Many young drivers no longer even bother to obtain provisional licences and a large number of other individuals drive on such licences indefinitely. A car is the equivalent of a lethal weapon. For that reason, it is incumbent on the Minister of Transport to ensure that respect for good driving is cultivated among young people. Little has been done in this regard in recent years.
The failure of the Minister and, in particular, his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, to address the area of driver testing and put in place a system that works has led to widespread disregard for good driving standards and the consequent unacceptable levels of death and serious injury on our roads. The obvious dangers associated with allowing unqualified drivers to drive alone was recognised by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Brennan, in late 2003 when he announced his intention to end the practice of those on provisional licences being allowed to drive unaccompanied.
In December 2003, Deputy Brennan said:
I have made it quite clear that this practice of driving unaccompanied has to finish. The legislation is being finalised and very soon it will be compulsory to pass a test in order to drive on our roads.
Applications for driving tests had increased dramatically during 2003, following a number of statements by the Minister off the top of his head about his intentions to sort out the mess. These statements, like so many others from the former Minister for Transport, came to absolutely nothing. As the Minister responsible he said:
The waiting lists have been swelling up big time. The average wait is now 42 weeks and a year ago it was only half that.
The same Minister did not appear to realise that he had any role or responsibility in creating that mess. He went on to say that despite the problems the backlog in applications had caused, he was glad to have "flushed out" the thousands of people who had no intention of ever taking a driving test.
He created chaos and there was a mad rush by people to do their driving test. Unfortunately, the same Minister who had responsibility for dealing with this area, did nothing whatsoever in terms of putting in place a modern system that could deal with the demand that exists for driving tests. That report, following the Minister's comments, went on to say: "A driver testing agency, run as a semi-State agency, would be established in March, Mr. Brennan said, to run the system with a more professional commercial approach." He was so interested and hung-up on making every aspect of transport commercial that he did not do any groundwork in terms of setting up the agency.
I have some sympathy with the current Minister because he has inherited a mess as regards driver testing as well as so many other aspects of transport policy because of the complete and utter negligence of his predecessor in office, Deputy Brennan. It was all about spin and hype and daily press statements that caused chaos. There was little or no follow-up. He was saying that the legislation would be in place by March 2004, and 12 months later we are only on Second Stage of that debate.
I requested figures recently from the Minister's Department. They show that there is only one driving tester for every 1,000 applicants waiting to sit the driving test. The data shows there are currently almost 120,000 people on waiting lists, but there are only 116 testers available at the various test centres around the country. That is completely inadequate. More interestingly, in spite of all the comments made by the current Minister and his predecessor, and the spiralling numbers of road deaths, a year ago there were 130 examiners at the 48 test centres around the country compared to 116 today. Incredibly, as the waiting lists expand the number of personnel available to deal with them decreases. I ask the Minister, again, to explain how that could be possible. Is it not indicative of serious negligence on the part of both the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, that this has been allowed to get to crisis point along with the fact that the number of personnel required to deal with the problem has been decreasing over the past year? Furthermore, the average waiting time for a driving test at many test centres is extremely long. In Thurles, for example, the average waiting time is 43 weeks and in Nenagh and Carlow, 42 weeks. The national average is over 30 weeks.
It seems the Minister and his predecessor have reiterated time and again their desire to see the number of provisional licence holders on our roads reduced dramatically. However, the personnel have not been put in place to deal with this backlog. It would seem that in spite of the road fatalities and serious injuries arising, and despite the many press statements and promises, nothing whatsoever has been done to sort out the chaos in the driver testing system.
I am sure the Minister, like other Deputies, has had a good deal of correspondence from driving instructors who are quite concerned about the implications for them of this legislation. It is important for the Minister to clarify that. I welcome the fact that there is a move to sort out the system as regards instructors. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell said, it is intolerable that anybody may set up a driving school, regardless of whether he or she is a licensed driver. That area needs to be sorted out urgently. From the viewpoint of people learning to drive and consumer rights, clear safeguards should be in place to ensure adequate quality standards and to guarantee that if someone signs up with the local driving school, it is a reputable operation. The person giving the instruction must be fully licensed, initially as a driver, and also qualified to be an instructor. Currently, no such system is in place and I urge the Minister to urgently introduce a licensing system in this regard.
The Minister also needs to clarify the position of people already in the industry who have taken steps to reach a quality standard, which is relatively high at present, because they are quite concerned. Another predecessor of the Minister, Deputy Bobby Molloy, indicated earlier to them that they would be included in the system if they signed up to the voluntary register. They find themselves in a limbo at the moment and do not know where they stand. It is important the Minister recognises the standards they meet at present and clarifies the position as regards future eligibility or qualifying criteria.
I am concerned with a number of other areas with regard to how the existing test system operates and the perception among the public that it is a mess. Why, for example, is there such variation in pass rates in the different test centres? We talked about the average pass rate and I accept the Minister's word that this is around the European average. However, there is quite a variation between the test centres, from a high pass rate of 66.4% in Shannon to a low of 47.3%. Again, the Minister needs to find out why that is the case. Is it a case of different standards being applied within driving schools or in the catchment areas for those centres? Why is there such a wide variation? It is unacceptable for people who come along for tests in good faith, if their chances of passing depend on the actual test centre they go to. This needs to be clarified and sorted out.
Another area of urgent concern is the rules of the road. Two years ago, in March 2003, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Brennan, was asked a question about the rules of the road handbook and when it would be updated.